ManBeerTech is Evolving!

Hi all! I just wanted to take a second and write a quick post about ManBeerTech. When I first started it, I wanted a place where I could talk about Beer and Tech and honestly about Manly stuff, like ya know… beer and tech. However, like all things I’m growing to talk about other things too and like my website to be a reflection of my interests. So we’ll see things like:

  • Home Automation
  • Everyday Carry/Tools/Gear
  • Beer/Wine
  • Man-Advice (Or maybe advice to women from a man, who knows)
  • Woodworking
  • Technology
  • Common Sense stuff

I’m going to attempt to keep this more of a journal-style than a place for news. We’ll see how long I can keep it up but it’s important for people to have their own platform for conveying their interests.

As always, I welcome comments, questions, and concerns. While we may not agree on everything I’m sure we can have an adult conversation about topics. See-you soon!

-David

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3-Way Smart Switches

The things no one tells you:

I’ve decided to take a quick break from our regular series: living in a smart home. This week I’m going to go over something that many people have asked about but also something I’ve worked on myself and had many questions during the installation: 3-Way Switches. I feel as though most home’s have more of these style of switches but that may only be due to the fact that most switches you either want to automate or control are 3-way as they’re typically in entry points of rooms and most rooms have multiple entry points. To preface, this isn’t necessarily an ultimate how-to guide but I will be explaining it along the way as best as possible. Ideally: YOU SHOULD BE READING THIS BEFORE YOU BUY. However, if you’re like me you didn’t bother searching for it until after you’ve bought them, you might be okay. So, strap in and hold on cause this one’s gonna be a long one.

Disclaimer:

This is only an amateur’s guide. I am not a professional electrician, simply a DIY enthusiast as many who read this are. Importantly, we’re working with a major shock hazard in your home. Please be sure to turn off circuits appropriately. However, I cannot gauruntee your safety and I do not how your home is wired. If you are unsure how or do not feel comfortable working on electricity I highly recommend you contact a licensed electrician to install your switches. If you continue reading and performing the installation, you would be doing so at your own risk and I cannot be held liable. Also, I recommend doing a regular switch BEFORE tackling 3-ways so you know what to expect. Utimately, you should contact a local professional for questions about proper code and wiring.

The Bad Kinda 3-way:

Now that we’ve tackled some of the legal stuff and the introduction, let’s get to learning. Once again, I highly encourage you to read this BEFORE you purchase switches, but I’ll give some pointers if it’s too late.

20170106_115425
This is what happens when you don’t look and plan ahead. 

 

Okay, cool… so what do you need to do first then?

Aside from you working with electricity and the dangers, the first thing no one tells you is to not buy your switches right away. The reason I explained in my last article still stands and that is that you should do your research first. Not only to find the best switch to fit your budget needs but more importantly which electrical connections are available. So, let’s go over your first steps:

  1. Turn ON the lights in the room and take note of which switch it is, especially in 4-way gang boxes. Also, locate the other switch that controls the same circuit and note of it as well. (Speaking from experience, I spent 3 hours installing and troubleshooting the wrong switch. I know it sounds dumb but when the power is off you cannot test this. Get a clear piece of tape and just mark under the switch.)

    dsc_0004
    A clear piece of tape is good for your memory.
  2. While the lights are ON locate your home’s circuit panel and cut the appropriate breaker OFF. The reason I do it like this is when you go back to the room, the lights should be OFF. This way you know you have the right breaker. DO NOT RELY ON THE MAPPING NEXT TO THE BREAKER.

    dsc_0008
    You can see I have made some additional notes. I’m not even sure what a Jazz Room is but my house certainly does not have one.
  3. With a screwdriver (typically a flat-head.) Remove both covers of the light switch(es). dsc_0005
  4. Many smart switches require a COMMON (aka Neutral) wire. They are generally white (but may not be) and there are generally a whole bunch of them connected together (or there may not be). If your switches are like mine BOTH SWITCHES will REQUIRE this connection.
    dsc_0009
    The elusive common wire bundle. (However, this a standard switch.)

    Typically a “remote” switch in my home does not have the common wire. While it’s not the end of the world this may prohibit or alter your purchasing decision. Head back to google and try to find some smart switches that do not require the common wire. Do some research. I cannot recommend any products as I haven’t used them and do not feel comfortable telling you so. In my case, I use GE Z-wave Smart Switches. These switches require that common wire. There are some out there that do not. However, I found many of them sacrificed something. So, see what works for you.

  5. There will also need to be “Traveler” wires that come off of your remote switch. Typically they are red but once again, they may not be.

    20161015_125739
    This is a great example of a non-standard 3-way switch in my home. None of these are standard colors. 
  6. You’ll also need to locate which switch has the power coming from this box. That is where you’ll put your primary switch. You can guess but be prepared for headaches. I recommend buying an inexpensive multimeter from your local home store to identify which one is hot. (More on this later)
  7. After you’ve done all that, replace everything and flip the breaker back on. Go online and buy your switches. For the GE Switches, you’ll need two. You’ll need the main switch that is their normal smart switch such as a GE On/Off Switch and also an add-on switch. These are what I use and can honestly recommend. The work natively with SmartThings and have some cool options.

    20161015_125412
    This way a 3-way “remote” switch to the “non-standard: switch earlier.  Noice there is no Common-Wire bundle, so in this case I could not use an Add-On switch without doing some additional wiring.

Okay Dave, I think I’ve got everything and ordered up my switches. Now what?

If you prefer videos, I highly recommend watching Jasco’s tutorials on YouTube just to get an idea of what you’re doing first. REMEMBER that they’ve minimal wiring in their boxes and they have it setup perfectly. Real-life isn’t perfect. My house had many different colored wires, so we’ll go over what mine had. Also, it’s important to look up other videos that simply explain how 3-way switches work. I personally prefer a more simple diagram since the lights are already installed:

yjotp

Here we see the HOT (aka Line) coming into the switch. From there, the circuit is designed so that no matter how your switches are toggled, they will complete or break the circuit. The reason I like this diagram is it also clearly demonstrates how the Neutral isn’t in the loop on the switches and are connected to the bulbs. Sadly, if your switches are like mine they will look like a rat’s nest.

Alright! Think I got it. Switches came in today, ready to install?

Yup! Hopefully, you have all the necessary connections (I’ll show what happens when you don’t) so let’s go through an installation. I’ll have a mix of photos since I’ve already installed all 3-Way’s necessary in my home but I’m adding the main switch to my bedroom. (The “main” switches are wired similarly except for traveler.) I’ll show you some of the add-ons as well. Since I enjoy nice ordered instructions:

  1. Once again, if they’re not already there. Re-label which switch you’re working on. It just helps.
  2. Cut the power from the breaker as before with the light on. This will help re-assure that you’ve got the power to the lights cut off. Remove the cover plate, then remove the switch.
  3. TAKE A PICTURE OF THE SWITCH. (It’ll help in case you have to abandon everything)
  4. Label the wires. Go ahead and grab either some white electrical tape or normal scotch tape will work. Wrap a piece around each wire and with a sharpie note which screws they’re attached to. (I label them: Top Left (TL), Top Right (TR), Bottom Left (BL), and Bottom Right (BR). Leave some space cause as we identify them we’ll note what they ACTUALLY are.

    dsc_0006
    Even though this is a two-way switch, I would still label the wires.
  5. Remove all wires and spread them out, now yell at everyone in the house to be careful and don’t go near them. Turn the power back on. Return to the wires, placing your Black lead on the multimeter on the GROUND wire (usually bare-wire OR green) touch your Red lead on the Bottom-Right wire, if you get a voltage reading of 120 AC volts that’s your Hot or Line, if there’s nothing, move to the other wires till you find it. It will go to the LINE plugin on your new switch. Go back and cut the power back off. Label your Line wire.
  6. Typically the other black wire above it will be your LOAD. You should also have a Red wire that is your TRAVELER. If you have either two Blacks or two Reds, you’re going to have to find out which is which. There are several ways to accomplish but really as in the diagram earlier, it doesn’t ultimately matter. (Once again, there are SEVERAL ways to do 3-ways. This is why when you go on Reddit everyone stays clear of giving advice because it’s a mixed bag. In the diagram above I actually have two travelers and the load is going to the lights off the auxiliary switch. So in my case, color doesn’t matter as long as it’s the same wires. To check this, wire-nut both wires together (not the LINE) and return to the aux switch. Using a continuity test (looks like a Christmas tree on your multimeter)  test the 3 wires in different pairs. You’ll see OL (Open Line) when there’s no circuit and you’ll see lights and/or a small ready when you’ve found the travelers. Add to your labels (on the aux switch) T1 and T2. The other remaining cable is your LOAD to your lights, label it so.
  7. Here’s where things get interesting. Now disconnect those two wires on the main. Connect the LINE wire to ONE of the wires and wire nut them together. Restore power. On the AUX side use your multimeter on AC Voltage, then put your black lead on the ground then your Red lead on T1. If there are 110-120volts, guess what? That’s now your new LOAD/LINE. If it’s on T2, that’s your new LOAD/LINE. (I’m using that phrase because the non-LINE wire on the MAIN switch will go into your LOAD port on the Smart Switch then it will become HOT when it has power. Speaking of power, go turn that off at the circuit breaker. So on the AUX side, take that wire (T1 or T2) and wire nut it directly to the LOAD. (Yes, that’s right it will not go into your add-on switch.) The remaining wire is your traveler. Add-on switches only have two connections. Traveler and Neutral. Finish wiring them as appropriately on the add-on side and main side. Traveler to Traveler
  8. BEFORE YOU THINK YOU’RE DONE:
    1. Connect the Bare/Green wire to the Ground on your smart-switch.
    2. Restore power and test to see if the switches are working BEFORE SCREWING THEM IN. I cannot tell you how infuriating it is to assume you’ve got it but you don’t. Once again, speaking from experience.
    3. Cut power and screw ONE switch in, test again. Also, experience speaking, sometimes you jog a cable lose especially when wiring the neutral in the wire nuts with 4 other wires.
    4. Do the final switch, yeah you got it. Test again.
    5. Now put the plates on.

Here’s a new MS-Paint rough diagram of what we’ve got going on now:

3-waysmart

The reason this works is because the Add-On switch has NOTHING to do with the lightbulb. Inside these switches are relays. Power is always going to them. When you work the Main Switch you tell the relay to connect/disconnect the circuit internally as opposed to the switches mechanical movement to complete circuits. The Add-On switch has a traveler line that is sending/receive a signal to the main to tell the Main Switch to turn off or on.

Whoa dude, that was a lot. Mine doesn’t look like that at all…

As I said earlier, 3-way switches are the bad kind of three ways. I’m going to apologize in advance that I cannot help everyone. Depending on the age of your house, if the builder was cutting corners, or they’re 100% up to current code you could see many different things and different wiring diagrams. My suggestion is as before:

  • If you don’t feel comfortable or don’t have necessary tools. Hire a pro.
  • Take pictures and label everything BEFORE you disconnect. It helps if you give up to be able to put it back as it was. (I still have a switch outside that I can’t get to work right cause I’m dumb and didn’t think about all this.)
  • Colors are never standard. While Electric Code is law, codes changes over time and rules have changed over the years. So, in your case think of Pirates of the Caribbean. “They are not really rules as much as guidelines that natural way of things.”
  • Speaking of code, if you wire something incorrectly or against code, you’ll have to fix it before you sell your home. You also knew about it and should be disclosed. So once again, look up your local code and try to make everything right. If it’s not right, call a pro.
  • When it doubt, Hire it out! It’s not worth it.

Got it, but let’s say I already bought the switches and didn’t notice I was missing a common.

As I said earlier, things should be done according to code. However, I made this mistake as well. Here’s how to get around it when you Add-On specifically doesn’t have neutral. Again, back to my awesome MS-Paint Diagrams:

3-waybypass

What I did was bypass the first switch and turned my Remote switch into the Main Switch. However, like a crappy Chess move:

  • You will either have a BLANK switch port
  • Or if you leave the existing switch there as a dummy, it does nothing. This confuses people especially guests and significant others.
  • Disrupts natural “flows”, by flows I mean when entering/exiting a room the light needs to be there. In my case, this works because the original room was a garage and it never made sense to between with.

Here’s the layout of the room which I got with doing this. Once again, I don’t recommend doing this but if you must and cause no one else told you:

familyroom_lights

In my family room, the Line goes into the original gang box then the travelers goto the other switch. However, the original gang box was inside the hallway, not in the room. So, when you wanted to get up to turn the lights on/off when watching tv, you had to go outside the room. So, you’d naturally go to the switch that’s inside room. When you come in from the Outside, I wanted the lights to automatically come on when the door is opened hence the automation portion but the light switch is still available there.

The only interruption to my original flow was coming in from the hallway. Bring in my Amazon Dot. While it’s annoying it’s not very often we need to turn the light on/off via that hallway switch (my wife didn’t ever do it from there either.) so after linking the switch through Alexa you can turn the room on/off or set the dim level from the comfy couch. This is the only reason it works with my family room. However, in rooms like my kitchen, I wouldn’t do this as you’re simply “passing through” most of the time to transition through the house and yelling at Alexa isn’t 100% guaranteed to work. I also can put a motion sensor in the hallway to have it automatically turn the lights on if entering but that requires some more advanced automation.

Okay… but what if…

As of right now, this article is 2,500 words. We had a lot to cover but I can’t cover everything. I’m SURE you’re going to have a lot of What-Ifs in this scenario. While I’ll do my best to help you I’m once again not a professional. Simply a DIY enthusiast. If you do have any questions I highly recommend going on Reddit.com/HomeAutomation and posting the question there. There’s TONS of helpful people (and a lot of know-it-alls be they good or bad) that can assist.

Also, I’m sure in writing this I made some mistakes, this document will be a “living guide” that I’ll update over time as people give me their input so feel free to leave any constructive criticism and I’ll do my best to keep it as relevant as possible.

Thanks for reading! Good Luck and See you Next time!

Living In A Smart Home Part 3:

Get Money, Buy Switches:

With big pushes from Google, Amazon, and many 3rd-party companies in the Smart Home realm we’re almost getting to the point where it’s actually useful. The purpose in this series isn’t necessarily a review or a how-to guide and you may certainly take it with a grain of salt. However, I wanted to write about the who, what, where, how and why in my home and maybe you’ll get some ideas of your own. It’s meant for the novice and the curious. It is for someone who is slightly tech-savvy and someone who isn’t tech-savvy. Feel free to use it as a “drunkenly honest” guide but remember that not everyone’s experience is the same and your applications may be different. With that being said, let’s get started with this entry!

Don’t make the same mistakes I did:

Last entry, I brushed upon your choice of Hub and +1. I recommended a hub by Samsung’s SmartThings. I just wanted to start out with a little support as to why. Receiving some criticism it can look like I’m favoring them and it’s pretty much true. I do obviously favor them cause I have them in my home. So far my experience has been generally positive. The devices I purchase for it work either out of the box or the community has written some impressive code to allow it. However, don’t take me as a professional blogger. I just do this in my spare time. I do not have the unlimited funds that CNET has. If I were totally unhappy with it, I’d change but it seems to fit the bill perfectly. Moving on from that choice I also recommended a +1, a smoke detector. Actually, I said to focus on a safety item. You’re more than welcome to purchase whatever you like. The reason I chose a smoke detector was to solve a specific problem, which was to be notified in case of a fire while my wife and I were away. As I said earlier, this blog is more of a journal-style and the things I encountered. Things I have deployed. Problems I have solved.

Dude, these aren’t problems… they’re wants.

A Reddit user stated that in the home automation there aren’t “problems”. I’ll respectfully disagree. It’s probably my mistake for not defining what I mean by problem but I implore you to take a “Problem” then “Solution” frame of mind. I’m referring to problems like in Math. (Boring, I know) “1 + 1 =” isn’t much of a problem, but it does have a solution. Part of my issue was shopping first. I knew I wanted automated lights, security sensors, automatic watering for my plants, automated sentry turrets… ya know the norm. What I should have focused on was solving problems. I would often see “Smart whatever on sale” and think, oh it just integrates into SmartThings, which simply isn’t true. There was a temptation to buy a whole bunch of switches and just change every one to be smart. (And not to mention costly.) There isn’t necessarily a need for that.

Okay, give me an example of a problem.

No problem! (I love puns) My first problem is my wife, (he said jokingly as his wife glances at him) not that she’s terrible person or anything but she’s actually the best case scenario for a good home automation setup and she keeps my grounded before I try anything extravagant. Whatever I do has to pass the “spouse” test, meaning if she can’t figure it out I am the problem. Specifically our front door was the problem. We came home late at night and our house was pitch black. She tripped over a shoe after trying to fumble to find which switch in a 4-way gang was living room light. Spoilers, it’s the one furthest from the door but try remembering that when you’re fumbling around.

Problem:

We come home late at night and it’s dark.

Solution:

Living room lights come on automatically when we enter the door.

Ah, but how to accomplish this? Well, my BIG mistake was going to buy a “Smart” lightbulb by Googling it. While this worked, it wouldn’t work with the light switch turned off. Remember my wife? Yeah, she turns it off and on to turn the light on and off. Guess what? She’s right. Home Automation and Smart devices need to feel natural. We’ve been programmed to turn lights on and off via a switch. We need to integrate our ideas with that. Hence the title of this week’s article.

Switches or bulbs?

In short, I will always recommend a smart switch over a smart bulb. There are a few exceptions though:

  1. You live in an apartment or rental and cannot make modifications.
  2. You do not feel safe or comfortable doing electrical work or do not wish to hire an electrician to do the wiring for you.
  3. You want different colored smart lights/moods.
  4. You have 3-way switches without the necessary connections.

This doesn’t cover everything of course, but those are some show stoppers when it comes to switches. (We’ll address #4 as it’s not always true.) Bulbs are great as well and I have no problems if you’d rather do bulbs just experience with people coming over is they’ll expect switches to turn on and off rooms, not apps or Alexa. There are other applications where bulbs may be a better choice, just not in any of the cases I personally have ran into.

Continuing our example, I ordered a GE-Z-wave On/Off Dimmable Paddle switch.

This was my first mistake and I lucked out. Always check your hub’s native compatibility list FIRST to ensure easy integration. I lucked out as it was supported by SmartThings, but I’ve ran into some trouble before. SmartThings is great cause chances are someone has already ran into the problem and there’s a solution but if you’re new I HIGHLY recommend checking first. When it arrived, I cut the power and took the plate off the wall.

Second mistake: BEFORE YOU ORDER: make sure you read about how they’re installed. In my case, GE’s Smart Switches REQUIRE a common-wire. (Generally white but could be any color). Once again, luckily I had that connection but I’ve got into 3-way switch installations without everything necessary being there. So once again, BEFORE YOU BUY: cut the power and verify you have all the necessary connections in both locations ESPECIALLY for 3-way switches. (I’ll write an article specifically about 3-ways since they’re very common in my home.) I wired it all up (well, I attempted to a few times and then found out what I was doing wrong) and was able to turn it on/off and finally sync it to SmartThings.

Using the Smart Lighting application on SmartThings I was able to tell the switch that anytime the front door was opened, between the hours of 5:30PM and 7:00 AM to turn on the lights. I’ll get into specific guides about this process later but in the main series I just want to address the big picture. We still had some problems based upon if the light was on already, however that came later.

Finally, I’d like to address one specific thing: It doesn’t make sense to automate everything or at least turn everything smart especially all at once. At anywhere from 30-50 dollars a switch that’s costly and you might not really see a benefit. A good example is my half-bathroom light. I COULD put a motion sensor in there and I could replace the switch to have it automatically come on when occupied then turn off. That’ll run me somewhere between $50-75$ dollars for the hardware. Or, I could just turn the light on and off when I go in like I’ve been doing for years. It sounds nice that you’ll save electricity but it’ll probably take a good long while before you see any return on that investment and most people have an instinct to hit the switch before you enter anyways. My recommendation is that you make sure that when you automate it actually makes sense. Use the problem/solution method, do research first, make a flow chart (coming later) on how that automation plays out.

Cool, but how did SmartThings know when the door was opened?

Sorry this one was a bit long but we had a lot to talk about. One thing I didn’t mention is how we got the door to be automated. While you can just buy a z-wave door sensor I went the more advanced route we’ll talk about next time: Your Smart Home Security System. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

 

 

 

 

Living in a Smart Home Part 2:

Home Is Where the Hub Is:

With big pushes from Google, Amazon, and many 3rd-party companies in the Smart Home realm we’re almost getting to the point where it’s actually useful. The purpose in this series isn’t necessarily a review or a how-to guide and you may certainly take it with a grain of salt. However, I wanted to write about where, what, how any why in my home and maybe you’ll get some ideas of your own. It’s meant for the novice and the curious from someone who is slightly tech-savvy and someone who isn’t tech-savvy. Feel free to use it as a “drunkenly honest” guide but remember that not everyone’s experience is the same and your applications may be different. With that being said, tet’s get started with this entry!

Your Next Step: The Hub + 1:

    Last post we spoke about Alexa’s integration and why I believe she should be your first step in th smart home. Wether you agree or disagree based upon what she can do is perfectly fine. It’s very debatable on what is the “center” of your Smart Home. While we could debate on Alexa being your first purchase, the next (or first if you disagreed) purchase will be your hub.

Wait… what’s a hub? I thought I just bought some smart light bulbs and there’s an app?

     Sadly, there is an app for that. I said “sadly” because I just bought an Amazon Dot that came with a TP-Link Smart Plug. It wasn’t a bad purchase and it’s certainly compatible with Alexa (which is fine if that’s all we have) but it isn’t directly compatible with my SmartThings Hub. That’s a bummer. There is a Kasa app, (pun intended?) but having to pick up your phone, look for the app, then open it to control one switch is the bummer. The “hub” is/can be the central location of your smart home. They’re designed to run automation and provide a central interface for you to control your various devices. While Alexa can serve is a “hub” of sorts, she doesn’t excel at it and you certainly don’t want to ask her to do everything unless you have her in every room. The hub is where you’re going to do most of your heavy lifting. When you come in the front door, don’t you want your lights to automatically turn on? Isn’t that the point?

Yeah, I mean, that sounds nice.. but why the +1? There’s a lot of them and they’re all like $100 dollars!

     They are! Well, they can be. Depending on your hub and where you get it it’s about $100 dollars. Wink, Iris, and SmartThings are seemingly the front-runners and while there are other alternatives I’m not 100% sure they’re for the non-tech savvy. Heck, even I’m scared to crack open my SmartThings hub and start fiddlin’ with the engine. The +1, is the important part. Your first truly smart device sets the tempo for the other devices you’ll be looking at. Chances, are it’ll be Zigbee, Z-Wave,  or worse, a native protocol (hence the apps earlier) that you’ll have to make sure not only your hub is compatible with but also all your other purchases going forward. We’ll talk about my recommendation but this is where your preferences / budget will need to come into play. I’m not going to presume to know it all, I don’t. There’s literally hundreds of options here. My best advice though: Think about your problem/s and find solutions. Look first. Ask questions. Then decide. Try and think about the future and what you’d like to accomplish.

Okay, Ok… so what so which Hub and which +1 do I get?

     Simple… SmartThings by Samsung. This is a personal choice and my opinion to the novice/enthusiast is that you can do a LOT of things. The SmartThings hub’s basic compatibility is really expansive. Namely, the most trusted Switches (GE Z-Wave) and other integrations with an open-ended API makes it the best choice for both the layman and the advanced. You can get the SmartThings hub from MANY locations, my wife and I were first looking at it as a solution for monitoring underneath our sink with a water sensor and integration with our Ring video doorbell. (Yes, I know.. we’ll get to the Ring later.) We got the Ring for safety concerns and we decided to put off the Hub until we were ready later to buy the kit with sensors. While we got the ring, we never did get the sensor kit cause we moved and wasn’t a big deal anymore. Recall earlier how I was saying think of problems you’d like to solve? After my wife and I moved to the farm, our needs and problems changed. While one of us is home 95% of the time, the other 5% was the problem.

Sorry man, don’t really care about your problems.. what about my +1?

     When we first moved it, we had an alarm system that was disconnected. I looked into hooking it up, it was about $20 dollars a month, included security monitoring and emergency contacts for fire. While $20 dollars is worth my family’s safety, the bigger problem was hidden fees with companies charging you simply to come out. If they monitoring company receives an alert, attempt to call but no one answers? They send out the Po-Po. Was it just a false alarm? $100 bucks. Man, that blows all because my wife and I were out shopping. When we really thought about it I’m more concerned for our furry animals while we’re out. The alarm system is great if you’re home but if there’s a fire and you’re gone? Well, I wanna know immediately so I can call my neighbors. So, our first purchase was a Smart Fire-detector, which was our best and worst choice. If I had to do it over again, I would do the exact same thing and encourage people to think, “Safety First”. Safety can be a broad term. Safety for me meant text/push notifications to my cell phone in case of a fire. It meant all the lights turning on if our security sensors went off at night, giving me a few moments to arm myself, investigate, and contact the authorities if necessary. It COULD mean, if you come home late at night, the lights to automatically come on when you get home. It’s up to you, but I would venture to guess most people’s first +1 should be a safety related item. If I had to give a recommendation, I prefer my Nest Protect, but I said I said earlier it might be a mistake since it’s not directly capable of being integrated with SmartThings. If you’re going for integration, First Alert makes a Z-Wave Smoke/Carbon Dioxide detector for around $50-$60 dollars on Amazon that integrates with SmartThings.

Cool! I’m going to buy that and 5 smart switches to put around my home! Thanks!

     Okay! I’m glad you’re enthusiastic about it but hold off for my next article where we actually start getting into it and what buying too much at once is not the Smartest.. (See what I did there?) thing to do. Till next time!

Living in a Smart Home Series Part 1:

Making a House, a Smart Home

With big pushes from Google, Amazon, and many 3rd-party companies in the Smart Home realm we’re almost getting to the point where it’s actually useful. The purpose in this series isn’t necessarily a review or a how-to guide and you may certainly take it with a grain of salt. However, I wanted to write about where, what, how any why in my home and maybe you’ll get some ideas of your own. It’s meant for the novice and the curious from someone who is slightly tech-savvy and someone who isn’t tech-savvy. Feel free to use it as a “drunkenly honest” guide but remember that not everyone’s experience is the same and your applications may be different. With that being said, tet’s get started with this entry!

Alexa… Write this entry…

Last year, my wife bought me an Amazon Echo for Valentine’s Day. Since then we’ve been using the Echo almost daily. However, like most things when we first got it we were excited and used it to answer questions randomly and made sure to use it. Now, she’s a glorified music player and egg timer in the kitchen. It’s by no means a bad thing. The Echo’s speaker is decent enough to give a good sound and setting timers is a breeze when your hands are full. The cost, being anywhere from $180 dollars normally down to ~$150 dollars on sale is comparable to a lot of Bluetooth speakers in that same price range. However, when we moved to our new house I started integrating with Samsung’s SmartThings. Slowly replacing light switches, adding in a Logitech Harmony remote, and several Amazon Dots (even a Amazon Tap) our house is slowly turning into a fully-featured smart home.

 

When she listens.. she’s great until she’s not:

“Alexa, play some music…” is probably the most common phrased uttered in my house out loud. This is probably the best service Amazon offers. When we’re in the kitchen making some Pizza Rolls our hands are generally full and finding a phone, hooking up a Bluetooth speaker or walking to our “Smart Panel” isn’t a very solid option. Alexa allows us to use voice commands for entertainment and control over our smart home and I would recommend an Alexa device first in your smart home.

     “Whoa, an Alexa-device first? What about a Smart Hub to control the lights?”

Great question random internet person! Why would I tell you to start with her? She can’t do a whole lot to your smart home without the other pieces, I.E. a hub, lights, smart remotes, etc.  Well, she does a million other things (exaggeration, she probably does hundreds or thousands of things) on her own. Namely, she gives your home the Star Trek computer theme. Smart Hubs are a GREAT start but you’ll need more than one component. A hub isn’t good unless you have things to manipulate with it. Alexa on the other hand can integrate with your Pandora account, set alarms, timers, reminders, to-do lists, a few shopping shortcuts, (I’ve yelled Alexa order more toilet paper on one occasion) and quick answers to questions like: “How many tablespoons are in a cup?” and “Which show is better, WWE RAW or the Bachellorette?”.  She can answer very simple questions but is limited on web searches. However, since Alexa has an open-ended API, (programmer speak meaning people can write stuff for it whenever they want) she can get new “Skills” like playing jeopardy. Put in a central  location in your home, you’d be suprised how much she’s used and how when you go into other rooms you’ll miss being able to shout things at her. Speaking of shouting…

The title of this is: She’s great until she’s not… So, what gives?

Well, I just said being able to shout things at her, Alexa listens VERY well when the environment is quiet. Too well, sometimes for some peoples taste but she picks up on Alexa rather keenly. There are occasions where she makes things difficult. For example, when she’s playing music somewhat loudly you’re going to have to overcome the volume to turn down or up the volume. When you tell her to “Play some Music” she tends to think your listening habits are the thing you listened to last time. Occasionally, she’ll mess up a timer with things like Fifty-minutes and Fifteen-minutes. She’s not perfect, but she’s close to it.

That’s cool, but she’s pricey…

Yeah, she is. She’s normally around $180 dollars on Amazon. We got her when there was only one option for a voice enabled speaker. However, with entries from Google Home and two other devices (The Dot verison 2 at $50 and Amazon Tap at $129) you’ve got some options. The Dot is a great beginning point. It’s basically a voice-enabled hockey puck with a speaker, Bluetooth connectivity, and audio out. Use this one if you’ve already got a decent speaker to connect to, (in example, our living room already had a soundbar we used for playing music) or just want to have voice-enabled commands. (We use our second Dot to automate actions in the Family Room such as turning the TV on/off or turning the lights on and off.) Google Home is another alternative at a cheaper price point. While I haven’t used it personally it’s better in someways than Alexa being connected to Google’s massive search engine. One thing I do not like, is the keying phrase of Google. Saying “Ok, Google” I find to be very difficult. It’s not that difficult where I wouldn’t and there’s a reason for having to say Ok, Google (Accuracy of trigger word) but it’s very harsh. Alexa, somewhat rolls off the tongue and you actually feel like you’re working with a companion not just shouting orders to a box. However, Alexa does get confused sometimes when I say my dog’s name, Lexie. (If your name is Alexa, you can change the key-phrase to Echo in the app).

Okay, so Let’s say I ordered one… or I don’t want voice in the home, what do I do next?

Simple, now you’re ready for the Smart Hub of your home. Which will be my next entry. Until then, if you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them! I try and answer everyone’s questions and comments so feel free! Until next time… Alexa, Goodnight!